How Quora Is Trying to Build an Ideal Society

Since launching Quora at the beginning of this year as a sort of thinking person’s Yahoo (s yhoo) Answers, former Facebook employees Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo have increased their staff to 11, raised $11 million, opened up to the public, and grown a vibrant community of questioners and answerers – even if they do still converse mainly about the San Francisco Bay Area and tech entrepreneurship. It’s become a site I visit most every day. So I recently went down to Palo Alto to meet up with Cheever for the first time since January.

So what is Quora up to? The top items on the company’s list, said Cheever, are growth and maintaining a high bar for quality content – and the two are often at odds.

The thing that most stood out from our conversation is that Quora thinks of its role as one of governance. They want to design tools that encourage people to contribute knowledge that is informative and current. The company’s plans are less about features, and more about figuring out ways to get new users to make good contributions, and giving power users incentives to share more. In a way, it’s sort of like trying to birth an online version Plato’s ideal society, with participants fulfilling designated roles in the interest of the common good.

That means that while Quora’s team thinks about things like introducing user rankings as a way to organize information, it hesitates on implementation because that might discourage new expert contributors with no previous standing on the site from joining the conversation, said Cheever. Instead, Quora has recently been working on things like giving user admins tools to distinguish quality contributions, and building topic hierarchies. Another new feature recognizes how long it has been since a user visited the site, and formats his personalized news feed accordingly.

That’s a different approach from the typical user-generated site – say, Facebook – which is designed to foster maximum participation by users, without placing any sort of value judgment on what they do.

“Our No. 1 thing is knowledge that people trust,” said Cheever. “Being a resource trumps making people feel good about themselves.”

Like Formspring, another (very different) Q&A company I visited last week, Quora thinks of the contributions it inspires as a sort of “inverse blogging.” Participants aren’t writing into the void, with no idea if anyone wants to hear their opinion of the best hummus or the best startup lawyer. If someone asks a question, it’s because she wants to hear an answer. And there’s less pressure, said Cheever, to make something perfect. There’s not an expectation that something has to be polished and professional-grade, or that people have to have the skills to build their own website to share their knowledge with the masses.

Though the hope is that everybody’s an expert on something, Quora also wants to offer satisfying ways for non-experts to participate. Non-experts can do research and write concise summaries, they can recruit experts and elicit their expertise, or maybe they could just be good at finding thumbnail pictures for topics (which the site recently added), said Cheever.

Another big focus has been catering to power users. As tech insiders have been roused to share their knowledge – especially about their own products or those of their competitors – Quora answers have often become topics for news stories. (Here are some from GigaOM.) D’Angelo has even done this as himself, confirming rumors of Google’s unannounced major upcoming social product in a post that amounted to irresistible linkbait. But some users would rather keep their answers within the community, so a few months ago the company introduced a “not for reproduction” option that will ostensibly stop these posts from being distributed outside the site (I’m not sure there’s a legal precedent for disallowing fair use like this). Quora is also, by design, not currently indexed by search engines, though it plans to allow them in the future.

What about scaling to knowledge areas outside its core topics of Silicon Valley and technology (if those two things are even separable)? Cultivating a community of quality contributors is one thing, but Quora’s big test is its breadth. Some competitors, like the technically focused Stack Overflow, are instead choosing the strategy of launching multiple sites to address different topics. Cheever admitted that diversification on Quora is happening slowly, but said general knowledge about things like local information in cities, music, movies and sports, as well as more specialized areas like physics, is coming along.

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